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Anyone who has encountered the fiction of Nell Zink knows it is nothing if not unpredictable. Her latest, AVALON, is a lighthearted Bildungsroman that is less noteworthy for its somewhat grab-bag plot than it is as an opportunity for Zink to display her gift for language, humor and refreshingly eccentric perspective on contemporary American culture that she has demonstrated in novels like NICOTINE and DOXOLOGY.

Abandoned by a father who leaves for Australia when she’s only 11 months old, and a mother who departs for a Tibetan Buddhist monastery when she’s 10, Brandy (“Bran”) Thomas experiences a childhood that appears to her “in fragments, like a cored and sectioned apple.” She spends her adolescent years living and working at a Torrance, California nursery owned by her multi-generational “common-law family” that doubles as a hangout for outlaw bikers.

" a plucky protagonist who gives the impression that despite the damage inflicted by her unconventional upbringing, somehow she will be able to navigate life’s challenges successfully."

The Hendersons of Bourdon Farms are a rough-hewn bunch, especially Grandpa Larry, who “used creepiness the way other people use charisma, to dominate a room.” When Bran reaches the age of 17, she functions essentially as an indentured servant, exchanging her exhausting work shaping hundreds of privets for the room and board she’ll have to repay when she graduates from high school. Still, she’s frugal enough with the gifts she receives from her maternal grandparents to save enough money to purchase a “subtly rhomboid Mazda” she drives without the benefit of any of the documents that would make it legal.

But at school, Bran’s life takes a turn that offers her a glimpse of a brighter future. In ninth grade she joins with a small group of classmates to start a literary magazine. At their meetings, “I was the happiest I had ever been in my life,” she recalls. The experience eventually kindles an incipient interest in screenwriting.

Too soon, however, Bran’s friends move on to college, which is out of reach for her in her hardscrabble circumstances. It’s not all bad news for her, though. Through her friend, Jay --- an aspiring dancer with no talent for the art --- she meets Peter, a transplant from Maine who enrolls at UCLA and is a budding literary intellectual. But when Peter transfers to Harvard to complete his education, he becomes engaged to a young woman with roots in the country of Brunei, even as he professes his feelings for Bran.

Peter’s thoughts are so “deep” that several times Bran resorts to a typographical convention --- [. . .] --- to indicate her “inability to quote, paraphrase, or reconstruct things Peter said.” One of the problems for the reader, unfortunately, is that much of what Peter does say, when it’s not utterly pretentious, is virtually incomprehensible. Even he admits that he tries to “stay away from things that make sense.” There is much talk of fascism, sprinkled with references to popular culture (he despises J. K. Rowling) and vague, passing mentions of ideas such as the Suprematism of Kazimir Malevich or works like Bachelard’s THE POETICS OF SPACE that Peter name-checks with annoying regularity.

Zink sends her plot spinning off in multifarious directions, and considering that the novel barely tops 200 pages, that’s one of its shortcomings. After Bran abruptly abandons Bourdon Farms for a refuge at the home of the parents of one of her high school friends, she takes up screenwriting in earnest. There she produces a pilot for a TV series about a late-capitalist earth that’s become “the battlefield in a turf war between opposing gangs of space aliens,” a work she considers a “tour de force of degradation, dehumanization, defilement, and satiric obviousness.” She tempers that farfetched story with her idea for one set on the mythical Arthurian island of Avalon. Meanwhile, she fears she’s being pursued by a biker gang displeased by her departure from the nursery. And, of course, there’s her unrequited love for Peter. If this all seems a bit disorienting, that’s one of the principal sensations generated by this novel.

Bran --- who is told at one point she looks like Audrey Hepburn, while another compares her to Natalie Portman --- is a plucky protagonist who gives the impression that despite the damage inflicted by her unconventional upbringing, somehow she will be able to navigate life’s challenges successfully. She is such an engaging character that bobbing along on the stream of consciousness inside her head helps to make up for most of the novel’s flaws. While AVALON isn’t likely to leave much of a lasting impression, it’s pleasant enough while it lasts.

Reviewed by Harvey Freedenberg on May 27, 2022

by Nell Zink

  • Publication Date: March 14, 2023
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Paperback: 224 pages
  • Publisher: Vintage
  • ISBN-10: 0593468155
  • ISBN-13: 9780593468159